Jerusalem has its own St. Nick

Jerusalem has its own St. Nick — and this jolly man has diplo­mas as proof

Daily Southtown (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By Ruth Eglash

JERUSALEM — It’s a busy time of year for San­tas world­wide. But for Jerusalem’s Mr. Claus, it’s been par­tic­u­larly hec­tic.

Re­cently, a restless crowd waited out­side the shiny red door of his tin­sellined home on Santa Claus Lane in Jerusalem’s Old City.

It was a fa­mil­iar scene, one played out in thou­sands of malls and stores across the globe — chil­dren and par­ents ea­gerly seek­ing a lit­tle face time with the kindly red-suited gen­tle­man.

Yet in Jerusalem, the tra­di­tional trap­pings of Christ­mas are hard to find, de­spite the Old City’s cob­ble­stone streets be­ing the back­drop to much of this holiday’s story.

Even as thou­sands of Chris­tian pil­grims make their way to the Holy Land this time of year, fairy lights, sea­sonal mu­sic, and an of­fi­cial Santa are all con­spic­u­ously ab­sent.

But not this year.

In July, Issa Kas­sissieh par­tic­i­pated in the an­nual World Santa Claus Congress in Copen­hagen and be­came a full-fledged cer­ti­fied Santa.

And with that, Jerusalem had its own St. Nick.

Kas­sissieh for­mally be­gan his Santa du­ties Dec. 1, and he has al­ready greeted about 3,000 vis­i­tors with sparkling Santa star­dust, im­ported candy canes and fake snow. When he’s not work­ing from home, he’s out visit­ing the sick and oth­ers who can­not make it to him.

“I am the only of­fi­cial Santa of the Holy Land,” Kas­sissieh, 40, said.

He pointed proudly to the neatly framed diplo­mas hang­ing on the wall above his spe­cial Santa desk, on which stands the man­ual type­writer he uses to re­spond to let­ters and re­quests he re­ceives from­fans all year round.

Kas­sissieh, an Arab Chris­tian and for­mer pro­fes­sional basketball player, is a well-known fig­ure in Jerusalem. For years he had donned the red suit and white beard, find­ing­fameas pos­si­bly the only Santa whose pre­ferred mode of trans­port is a camel, as op­posed to a rein­deer.

But, tak­ing his role se­ri­ously, Kas­sissieh de­cided to be­come for­mally cer­ti­fied, at­tend­ing Santa schools in Colorado and in Michi­gan, as well as the Copen­hagen congress.

“Peo­ple think that any­one can just put on a red suit, but you also need to study the spe­cial spirit and the joy of Santa,” he said.

You also need to know how to bake cook­ies and carve wooden toys, ap­par­ently — all skills Kas­sissieh has mas­tered at spe­cial Santa­work­shops.

Ev­ery­thing in his “Santa’s House” — a 700-year-old stone struc­ture in a nar­row al­ley that is decked with Christ­mas lights and a help­ful sign di­rect­ing vis­i­tors to “Jerusalem,” “the North Pole,” “Santa’s House” and “Santa’s work­shop” — is hand­crafted. He has even built a full-size Santa sleigh.

“Theyalso teach youhow to talk to chil­dren, how to dress prop­erly, to be clean and smell good,” he said. “You need to show hap­pi­ness andwel­come ev­ery­one — even those who are scared of you — with a smile.”

But that is no easy feat in Jerusalem, where po­lit­i­cal and re­li­gious ten­sions can sour even the most gen­uine of ges­tures.

In the past, the ap­pear­ance of Christ­mas trees and other holiday dec­o­ra­tions in malls and ho­tels has drawn protests from ul­tra-Or­tho­dox Jews. Last week, a shop­ping mall in the south­ern Is­raeli coastal city of Ash­dod sparked an up­roar by erect­ing a Christ­mas tree in its cen­tral plaza.

One city coun­cil mem­ber from the ul­tra-Or­tho­dox Shas party said it was “in­tended to hurt any­one who iden­ti­fies as Jewish.”

“My aim as Jerusalem Santa is to bring ev­ery­one to­gether with peace and se­cu­rity,” Kas­sissieh said. The re­cent ten­sions be­tween Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans would not de­ter him from spread­ing Santa’s joy, he added.

“We are all hu­man,” said Kas­sissieh, who re­ceives Jewish, Mus­lim and Chris­tian vis­i­tors.

Sarah Tut­tle-Singer, a Jerusalem- based writer who is Jewish, took her two chil­dren to visit Santa re­cently. She said it was im­por­tant to her that her chil­dren learn about other re­li­gions and cul­tures.

“My kids love the lights and the tree and the candy and the holiday spirit even though they know it isn’t our holiday,” Tut­tle-Singer said. “They es­pe­cially love how jolly Santa is and how he laughs and makes them feel spe­cial.”

Kas­sissieh’s jour­ney to Santa-hood started in the Chris­tian Quar­ter of Jerusalem’s Old City, where much of the city’s Chris­tian pop­u­la­tion lives and­works.

He­was born just a stone’s throw from the Church of theHoly Sepul­chre, the site where Chris­tians be­lieve Je­sus was cru­ci­fied, buried and later res­ur­rected.

“Even though I grew up here, the cen­ter of Chris­tian­ity, we did not cel­e­brate Christ­mas like they do in other coun­tries,” he said. “I re­ally wanted to bring what I saw in Europe and in Amer­ica to the chil­dren here, too.”

Now, as Santa, Kas­sissieh does just that.

Open­ing the door to his lov­ingly crafted home on Santa Claus Lane and greet­ing his vis­i­tors ev­ery evening with a “Ho, ho, ho” fromtheHoly Land.

DAVID VAAKNIN/FOR THEWASH­ING­TON POST

Issa Kas­sissieh, 40, greets chil­dren at Santa’s House in Jerusalem. “I am the only of­fi­cial Santa of the Holy Land,” he says.

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